02 Jul NanoRite Innovation Center opens with small science, big promise
Eau Claire, Wis. – Given the potential of nanotechnology to impact a range of industries and societal challenges, the state and federal governments and private donors have made very wise investments in the new NanoRite Center for Innovation, according to a noted authority on “all things small.”
NanoRite, part business incubator and part innovation center, soon will open on the Chippewa Valley Technical College campus. One of its vocal backers is Jack Uldrich, president of the NanoVeritas Group and author of “The Next big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology Will Change the Future of Your Business.”
Even though he was concerned with the lack of a major research university in the immediate area, Uldrich was among those who persuaded leaders in western Wisconsin to pursue the facility.
He has written that nanotechnology, which refers to the manipulation of matter at the molecular and atomic scale, will enable advances in manufacturing, healthcare, and alternative energy.
By extention, he said NanoRite could be “very transformative” for the economy of northwestern Wisconsin. “What’s interesting about nanotechnology is that it’s such a broad-based technology,” Uldrich said.
Administrators at CVTC, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and the University of Wisconsin-Stout are eager to see just how broad that base is.
Bill Ihlenfeldt, president of CVTC, sees NanoRite as part of the “IQ Corridor” stretching from Chicago to the Twin Cities. Not only does it have the potential to speed the development of new products in existing industries, it provides regional employers with students who have been exposed to nanoscience curriculums and instrumentation.
The problem with previous business incubators is they have not been tied to educational institutions, Ihlenfeldt said.
“We talked with Mark Bugher (director, University Research Park) and people at the University of Minnesota, and they told us that some of those industries will want a long-term association with the colleges due to equipment, expertise, and students,” Ihlenfeldt said. “We’ve developed 5,000- to 10,000-square-foot modules in the building for companies that want that connection. We expect these companies to provide internships for students.”
The 40,000-square-foot facility also will feature large-, flex-, and wet-lab space, clean room space, instrumentation, classrooms and offices, and a micro-fabrication lab.
Thus far, NanoRite has attracted one tenant, OEM Fabricators of Woodville, Wis.
OEM Fabricators typically develops products, mostly medium- to heavy-gauge components, for original equipment manufacturers. Through micro-machining and micro-fabrication, Mark Tyler, the company’s founder and president, said OEM also is looking to produce components at a smaller scale than is typical in the industrial world.
Tyler, a member of the Wisconsin Technical College System Board, believes NanoRite’s collaboration with CVTC and area universities will create a number of connection points with industry, especially in the area of workforce development.
“We feel that any way we can network with technical colleges or universities gives us a leg up in attracting their students to our organization,” Tyler said.
The St.Paul-based 3M, long a maker of nano-based products, is a funding partner of NanoRite, and each educational institution brings its own niche. In addition to the capstone program, CVTC has strengths in fabrication and lithography; Eau Claire contributes strong chemistry and physics departments, and a Materials Science Center focused on material characterization; and Stout is strong in polymer technology.
In addition, the biotechnology program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls can be leveraged, and the University of Minnesota collaborates with CVTC through a capstone program in nanotech.
“One of our goals is to not duplicate what everyone else is doing,” said Doug Dunham, an assistant professor of physics at UW-Eau Claire and director of its Materials Science Center.
Dunham said the university is developing a material science major. As NanoRite evolves, he said Eau Claire’s new materials sciences classes would be offered to some CVTC students as a way to further leverage resources.
NanoRite was built with the help of $4.2 million in private support, a $1.5 million federal grant, and a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce.
Under a proposal in the Wisconsin Legislature, the state would allocate $3 to $4 million to UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, and CVTC to promote nanotech research, and a separate bill would provide $2.5 million in tax credits as an incentive to invest in nanotech.
Although nanotech is still considered to be in its infancy, the National Science Foundation estimates that an international nanotech market of $1 trillion will emerge by 2015. Pam Owen, manager of NanoRite, said the science already has produced thousands of “nanoproducts,” including “nanopants” (Dockers) that repel liquids and new versions of sunscreen that feature new coatings to block the sun’s rays.
“It may not be called nano, but it’s embedded in a lot of products already,” she said.
Uldrich thinks nanotech ultimately will be used to help solar panels capture more of the sun’s energy and make solar energy a more cost competitive way to heat homes and businesses.
He noted that nanotech already is transforming the semi-conductor and computer industries, and ticked off the names of a number of northwestern Wisconsin companies, including Silicon Graphics, that could benefit from the synergies of NanoRite.
“If the region hopes to keep these businesses,” he said, “nanotech is a good way to make sure they can stay competitive.”
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